Shop Talk: 20 Years On, Do We Now All Get Along?

Host Michel Martin checks in with the Barbershop guys about the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots and whether a "post-racial" America is possible. They also weigh in on controversy in the National Hockey League.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael. He's with us from Cleveland. In New York City, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. R. Clarke Cooper joins us once again in Washington, D.C. He is the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. That is a Republican group that advocates for LGBT issues within the Republican Party. He's also an Army Reserve captain. And in our D.C. studio, also with us, Cenk Uygur. He is the host of "The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur" on Current TV and he's in town for the White House Corresponents' Dinnerthis weekend and he was nice enough to stop by.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

PABLO TORRE: Howdy.

R. CLARKE COOPER: Yo.

CENK UYGUR: Great.

IZRAEL: OK. First time in, Cenk. My dude, what's up, man? Nice to have you with us.

UYGUR: Thank you, Jimi. I appreciate it. It's lovely in here.

MARTIN: No. He's making fun of the fact that our studio is fabulous, but he's basically hating already. That's (unintelligible)...

UYGUR: Exact opposite. I'm loving it. I want to hang out on that couch all day.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: All right. Well...

MARTIN: (Unintelligible)

IZRAEL: Let's jump in. OK? You know, as we talked - as you talked about earlier, Michel, it's been 20 years since riots in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four officers in the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King. Now, King himself told people to stop the violence.

Michel, we got some tape of that. Yeah?

MARTIN: Yeah, we do. We do. And if you missed any of our conversation with Rodney King, you can feel free to check in on that and go to our webpage. Go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

But these are some of the comments King made at the press conference after the riots started. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODNEY KING: We've got to - we've got to quit. We've got to quit. You know, after all, I mean, I can understand the first upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on - to keep going on like this and to see the security guard shot on the ground, it - it's just not right.

IZRAEL: Wow. The emotion in his voice is just moving.

MARTIN: It really is. It really is.

IZRAEL: Thanks. Thanks, Michel. Now, we've certainly come a long way with people calling for cool heads around the Trayvon Martin case. People have marched peacefully and rallied around the family. Now, it's different because we don't have a verdict yet, so we don't have any way of knowing how or if moods will change.

But fellas, do we have something to compare in contrast here? What do you guys think all this says about where we stand on race today? Cenk Uygur, now, you lived in LA for the past decade. What's the vibe in the city like now?

UYGUR: Well, LA's an amazing city that's so multicultural, you know, and it goes on - anybody who's been there knows - for miles and miles, it's the endless city, and then you go through Armenian territory, then Thai, then Mexican, then Chinese. It's an amazing place.

So the vibe in the city in LA is pretty good, but you know, when I see stories like the Trayvon Martin story, I'm shocked by - if you will - the vibe in other places, and you know, to me, I thought it was a clear case of discrimination when they didn't arrest George Zimmerman. And, you know, I know a lot of people get emotional about that. We've been covering it for day one and people say oh, you know, you're making assumptions. I mean give me a break. If it was, you know, reverse the races and there's no way in the world that they don't arrest that guy on the spot. There just isn't.

IZRAEL: Hmm. All right. Well, Pablo Torre, you were very young during the riots. Do they mean anything to your generation now?

TORRE: Yeah. I mean I was I think in first - at the risk of losing all editorial authority - I was in first grade, I think...

IZRAEL: Yikes.

TORRE: ...when it happened. And, you know, I think honestly, I mean at that point that was like sort of the - at the nexus when memories sort of get vivid. And I think for my generation I don't think it's as vivid as say the Oklahoma City bombing - certainly, 9/11. These - I think the Rodney King riots are cultural reference points for a lot young people, but I think every new generation, you know, the further you get away from it the less real it seems. And I don't think it has that kind of palpable emotional sensory salience that some of the other historical events have had that are not about race. And so, you know, every reminder about what happened, I mean basically as soon as you read about it you're kind of jolted awake, I think. And it's troubling.

IZRAEL: R. Clarke Cooper, Captain Coop, what do you think?

COOPER: Well, we're making strides in the right direction but the truth is is we're not in a post-racial society.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

COOPER: I mean this is if we go back to the whole precepts of liberty and justice for all, that's what we're striving for and we continue to strive for. But in a day and age where there are some in some communities who do judge one by the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their sex, sometimes their sexual orientation, you know, those are still issues where we're at. I mean we've obviously had some major accomplishments in addition to those hurdles. I mean we're in a post-segregation society, things are more integrated. I was born in the 1970s so, you know, I do remember what happened in Los Angeles. But I also can recall when I was in university that integrated student activities were still unique. This is the 1990s. So, you know, we're moving in the right trajectory, but we're certainly not in what some would call a post-racial society.

Because look, you know, if one has to caveat or parse their critique of President Obama's performance or lack thereof, that is an indicator that we're still worried or focused about one's race - because if we're looking at someone's whose merit or capability, race should never play and factor good or bad.

IZRAEL: You know, it's funny you mentioned that because in the new Rolling Stone that hits news stands soon, you know Obama talks about - he pushes back on that whole idea of his presidency signifying some kind of post-racial America.

Cenk Uygur, this is something you've talked about on your show, "The Young Turks" on Current TV. What does - OK, I got a question for you because I sincerely want to know this. I mean what does post-racial even mean? And you'll let me know when we get there, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UYGUR: Yeah. I will, actually. We'll break that news...

IZRAEL: Good. Good. Yeah. Email me or text.

UYGUR: No, we'll break the news on "The Young Turks." We will...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Sweet.

UYGUR: We do do official declarations every once in a while...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK.

UYGUR: ...so just give us a couple of decades and it's right around the corner. Look, you know, this is what drives me crazy, people like Dr. Laura say oh, come on, you already have a black president, get that chip off your shoulder already. Yeah, but it's not about that, man. I mean I can - we cover story after story. We just did one on how waiters admit that they discriminate against black clients because they think they're going to get a lower tip so they treat them badly. And then they get a lower tip because they treat them badly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UYGUR: Yeah. OK.

IZRAEL: Imagine that. Yeah.

UYGUR: So, you know, and then there's the white hand, black hand trying to sell an iPod on eBay, that study. There's the resume study. So I think what happens is that a lot of white Americans, when you talk about these issues, they take it personally. Like they think you're accusing them of being racist and I think that's what really hurts this issue. And what I want to try to explain to people is look, just understand people's perspective and the perspective they have might not be the one that you have. So they might have had trouble getting that job because of their name on their resume. They might have had trouble with the police that you didn't have, so can you walk in their shoes for a second and begin to understand those issues? And I think that helps us, hopefully, push in the right direction.

MARTIN: But can I just, I want to talk about that a little bit Cenk, though, the feedback loop that you're talking about and how much you talk about it then becomes part of the feedback loop. We were going to talk about this later but I want to sort of talk about this now. This whole thing about what - well, we're in D.C. so the Capitals, right...

UYGUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...has been one of these stories that are kind of like our, you know, our White Sox, you know what I mean? We're kind of...

UYGUR: God bless 'em. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...perpetually in contention, can't get over the line. So the Washington Capitals beat the Boston Bruins in game seven of the playoff series in hockey this week. I'll just play a short clip for people who missed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOCKEY GAME)

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Back to the line. Knocked down. Knuble to the line with Ward. Knuble comes in, (unintelligible). Scores. Ward buries the puck and the Capitals have upset the Bruins.

MARTIN: So, of course, the Bruins, perennial powerhouse in hockey, right? And Joel Ward is African-American. And so this was a big deal in Washington because everybody's all excited about the Caps. And then some of the sportswriters start pointing out that Twitter erupted after the game with these racially charged posts. And we can't - I mean I'm sorry, I can't part my lips to even say a lot of these things, but I'll just give you a mild example: Go play basketball. Hockey is a white sport. People threatening to kill him and all this.

So, Pablo...

TORRE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...some people are saying, you know, people are saying well, gee, you know, what's going on here? I mean does this league have a problem with diversity? Or what and, you know, so what do you think?

TORRE: Well, I think hockey I guess, is by consensuses probably the most quote/unquote, "white" mainstream sport in of the big four leagues, so there's that element to it. Boston obviously, you talk about the Red Sox being the last MLB team to integrate. You talk about Bill Russell, arguably the greatest NBA player ever, the winningest player ever. He's spoken about facing bigotry while playing for the Celtics, vandalism in his home, racial epithets, all of that.

But, to me, you know, this is almost as much a story about social media and the outlet it gives insane, bigoted fans as was everybody else. You know, you look at Twitter during any big event, sports certainly, it happened during the Linsanity period, RIP, and all these big topics and you find the darkest corner of the world. I mean if you want to go to the most dank, depressing place in the universe, go to a comment section on a YouTube video. And it could be any YouTube video. I mean as long as you get a critical mass of people, there's this notion where social media is this place where you can cathartically vent and enjoy generally being horrible. And this is true for racist sports fans especially.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre - that's who was talking just now. Also with us, journalist Jimi Izrael, Army Reserve Captain R. Clarke Cooper - he's also the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, and Cenk Uygur, host of "The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur."

All right. Well, Cenk, you were saying - Cenk, you were saying that this kind of even talking about it maybe gives it air, which is a little bit different from what you were saying earlier. See, I'm always sort of confused about this. You know, should we talk about it or should we not talk about it? I mean if I were the target of this business...

UYGUR: Right.

MARTIN: ...I don't know what I would, what I would want. Would I want people to talk about it to say yeah, this is wrong or do you want people to not talk about it?

UYGUR: Right. So this, I have mixed feelings about this one. So on the one hand Pablo's right that, you know, the online gives anonymity to people and hence, you get to see the dark corners of their soul, right? Because once they have that anonymity they're like, OK, now let me tell you what I've been thinking, right?

TORRE: Mm-hmm.

UYGUR: And that they wouldn't have free rein to do in public. On the other hand, it's so prevalent online that I, you know, I feel like yeah, they attacked him based on his identity. To me working online for as long as we have, I think, of course, that's of course what they're going to do...

MARTIN: Well...

TORRE: Right.

UYGUR: ...because they're trying to attack him, right? So for me, for example, and I've got this literally probably a million times, you're fat. You're Middle Eastern. You're Muslim. You're this. You're that. You sweat. Whatever. Right? And I'm like so if I talked about that on any given day you can go, you know, as Pablo was saying, go on any of our YouTube videos and you'll see that, right?

MARTIN: Yeah.

UYGUR: So I could talk about it every day.

MARTIN: You're not fat. Let me just say this, you're not fat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But Clarke, what you think? Because it's not like LGBT folks and activists are immune to this kind of thing so...

COOPER: No. It's, any YouTube site, any website, any article online with a comment section, anything with a comment section where you have this anonymity out there on the online community...

MARTIN: But why is it that these people don't use their anonymity to spout poetry?

COOPER: Well, because...

MARTIN: OK, what is up with that? I mean I find that women particularly - I have to say it - I'm the only woman in the shop today. Well, I'm always the only woman in the shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But I'm just saying women it seems to be to come in for a lot of vicious sexually charged comments no matter what they're talking about, no matter what your political persuasion is, so.

COOPER: Well, this issue is a piece we haven't discussed about that, about this anonymity is that people are selecting to speak or voice opinions that they know probably are counter to general social mores or what general society sees as acceptable. And we saw evidence of that with the attacks on Joel Ward, they're all of a sudden some Titter accounts are starting to disappear.

TORRE: Right.

COOPER: Some of these tweets are starting to be deleted. So on a positive side, as bad and as egregious and as horrible as those tweets were or messages that showed up is that there was a realization with oh, wow, I'm in trouble here. I may lose my job. I could lose status with my neighbors or with family and friends because if they found out I said those things they are wrong. So as bad as they were, there's at least a recognition of this is counter to where our society is striving to be.

MARTIN: Jimi, want a final thought on that? Do you - go ahead.

IZRAEL: What's interesting to me is how young these people are. And, you know, I see these comments and I've gotten a few of them. You know, because I write for the Internets every now and again and, you know, I kind of brush it off my shoulder because you know, racism, the N-bomb is like breakdancing or skate boarding for a lot of these young white kids. It's just the new hip thing to do to get attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: And next year it'll be something else. It'll be guyliner.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: You know, so I don't put a whole lot of stock into it.

MARTIN: That's interesting.

IZRAEL: You know it's just something to do to get attention. If you drop the N-bomb then maybe your Twitter account will appear, you know, in a news article about it.

MARTIN: Interesting.

IZRAEL: You know, it's just something to do.

MARTIN: So it's transgressive and attention-getting in a way that something else would've been. An interesting thought. Before we let you go, Clarke, I have to ask you about this. You are talking about how people need to learn, sometimes people learn the hard way, that Facebook, what starts on Facebook doesn't stay on Facebook. Well, Marine Sergeant Gary Stein is set to receive an other-than-honorable discharge for a Facebook post about President Obama. One of his posts was: I will not follow all orders from him. You know, Clarke, you're the only active-duty person here, a Reserve. What do you think?

COOPER: Well, and this is real easy here I mean this guy signed a contract, this Marine signed a contract. And the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the UCMJ is very clear about what you can and can't do. Obviously all Americans, including military personnel, have First Amendment rights, you have that freedom of speech, you have opinion, you can vote, you can actually participate in the political process within those parameters set out in the UCMJ. And unfortunately, this Marine violated that. He signed a contract. He can't claim he did not know. But contemptuous language or behavior that would be seen as egregiously attacking a senior officer, senior officials if you are a subordinate - especially the commander-in-chief - is a no-go zone, and that's what he did. He went beyond general discourse. He went beyond the pale. And this is why it took a Marine panel to make that ruling.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Maybe next week we'll talk about how the NFL draft played out. Thank you all.

Jimi Izrael is a freelancer journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre, reporter for Sports Illustrated, with us from NPR studios in New York. R. Clarke Cooper is a captain in the Army Reserve. He's also the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. And with us for the first time - we hope not the last - Cenk Uygur is the host of "The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur" on Current TV. They were here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much.

TORRE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

UYGUR: Ho(ph).

COOPER: Thanks.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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